AN HOUR BEFORE her play was to preview on Broadway, Elizabeth For-sythe Hailey was squeezing Woolite from one of husband Oliver’s dress shirts. Her green-and-white curling iron warmed nearby, propped on a washrag to protect the finish of a chest of drawers. The phone rang again and again in their middle-of-the-line room at the Warwick Hotel. Elizabeth answered reporters’ questions and friends’ best wishes with the same measure of laughter and enthusiasm: “Yes, I’m absolutely ecstatic….Yes, I believe that whatever the fate of the play, we’ve all done exactly what we wanted to do…no compromises.”
A Woman of Independent Means, the play based on Betsy Hailey’s bestselling first novel, is not standard fare for Broadway. Like the book, the play is composed entirely of fictional letters Betsy imagined her grand-mother, Dallas matriarch Bess Jones (Bess Steed Garner in the play and book), writing to her family and friends. It is a one-woman play and that one woman, Hollywood veteran Barbara Rush, is well over 40 and at all times fully clothed, non-singing and non-dancing. She begins reading letters aloud as Bess Steed Garner at age 25. She keeps on reading (with one intermission) until Bess’ death at age 78. There are no set changes, no heavy makeup and only a few subtle costume changes. Through most of the play, Rush sits at a lady’s writing desk, pen in hand.
No sleaze, no sex, no suspense. The Haileys knew it would be difficult to hook the attention of Manhattan’s hardened critics.
But success didn’t seem any more likely in 1975 when Betsy Hailey, long introduced as “a wonderful wife and mother,” sat down at her kitchen table to try to write a readable account of her grandmother’s life. Betsy was 36 years old, the mother of two school-age daughters and a reader of Ms. magazine since its very first day on the newstand. “I never went to any meetings or anything, but I guess I was very caught up in the feminist movement. It challenged me and made me realize how very dependent I’d become on being involved with Oliver’s work. It was time to try to do something on my own.”
One year and 800 handwritten pages later she had the first draft of A Woman of Independent Means. She never changed the first words she wrote: “Dearest Mama, I will be home in a month, and Rob and I will be married this summer. Please don’t say anything to him, for I want to be the first to tell him.” She chose to write from her grand-mother’s perspective partly from a sense of heritage, an indebtedness to her family and hometown.
“But I knew it was a feminist novel in disguise,” she says. “I was very disturbed by the radical element that made any woman who stayed home with her husband and child feel she was betraying her sex. I felt there was a middle ground that nobody was stating.”
Betsy covered the middle ground, and, in doing so, introduced a breed of total woman, a fusion of feminism and traditionalism. “My grandmother was ordinary,” she says. “There were hundreds of women like her. I wanted to write about her to show that you don’t have to make history to have your life matter. She was a woman who attached value to the kind of life she lived, who went about making a place for herself in the city.” Her story is one of those rare, flattering portraits of a Texas woman, a woman in the likeness of Mrs. Alex Spence or Roberta Camp, the early Dallas matrons who went about giving our city culture with a capital “C”.
When she finished writing, Betsy had a terrifically candid profile of an Every-woman-her motives, her cunning, her insights. Often, Bess Garner Steed is condescending toward men; but with her mix of intuition and intellect, she somehow justifies her attitude. To read about Bess or to see her on stage is to recognize one’s mother, sister or self. Occasionally, she implies, women merely tolerate men. And sometimes, just as men use women, women much more cleverly use men.
Betsy says she is still amazed to hear people say, with tears in their eyes, that A Woman of Independent Means is their favorite book. She was also surprised at the shining review that appeared about it in The New York Times in 1978 and that her book sold more than a million copies.
But Broadway is a different ball game altogether, and Betsy and Oliver came to New York knowing that all too well. Oliver is by preference a playwright but does “bread and butter” work for television and film. He wrote Isabella’s Choice for CBS with Jean Stapleton and Sidney Schorr for NBC with Tony Randall. He also did work, often with help from Betsy, on Mary Hart-man, Mary Hartman and McMillan and Wife. His plays-Who’s Happy Now and Father’s Day-have been successful in theaters across the country. But not on Broadway. “New York is the hard nut to crack,” he says.
The first week A Woman ran, the Haileys felt a little optimistic. Every preview during Easter weekend and the following week filled the Biltmore Theater. There were standing ovations and cheers. Every night seemed more encouraging. But Betsy and Oliver knew the night that mattered was opening night, when the critic from The New York Times would watch the show. A deadly review from that almighty clarion could end the play’s future on Broadway. Venomous reviews in The Times regularly cause crowds to evaporate and marquees to darken overnight. After every show before opening night, Betsy, Barbara Rush, the show’s producers and director Norman Cohen would exchange notes, changing this line and that expression, tailoring the show for the Broadway stage.
Oliver Hailey was busy himself that week: His adaptation of Strindberg’s The Father was opening in Philadelphia. He’d return to New York by train on the 12:30 a.m. express, and he and Betsy would compare, in the quiet early morning hours in midtown, the night’s performances. His show was also going well. He’d tried a new approach to the difficult Swedish play with a fresh translation. The story is about a man whose wife convinces him he’s insane and has him committed to an asylum. The deterioration of their relationship ends in a telling moment in the play, when the wife helps put her husband in a straightjacket. The death of the trust between them is a familiar story. Husband and wife have become natural enemies.
Betsy and Oliver, by contrast, remain natural friends, although some people don’t seem to understand that. Oliver is still surprised at how often he’s asked how he’ll feel if Betsy’s play is a success on Broadway. “Wouldn’t you want your best friend to suceed?” he asks. “People get so mixed up in marriage; it brings out their worst. Her success will be a success in the family. No one could be happier than I.”
Betsy isn’t a woman driven by her ambition. “My real life is pretty demanding,” she says, “and enough else is going on with me that I don’t have to justify myself by writing. I don’t feel guilty if I go a day without writing a word. My work doesn’t define what I am. It’s just something I do.”
“The difference between us,” Oliver says, “is that I’m compulsive, Betsy’s not. 1 push her through when she loses heart. She’ll even go away for a few days without taking her work with her, and I think that’s pretty strange. I could never do that.” Oliver is given to scratching out dialogue while standing in bank lines. He likes to read aloud his work as he writes, looking for Betsy’s approval, line by line.
For Oliver, work has a calming effect. On a train ride, he settles back and notices his breathing become slow and regular as he begins to put words on paper. His voice is that of a master storyteller as he tells of the childhood that led him to the stage. He knows how to enliven those memories with inflections, pauses, cadences. He remembers sitting on a broad wooden porch in East Texas, listening as his grandmother and the neighbor ladies talked. He was endlessly fascinated by their conversations and by the wickedness of their humor. He recalls a day when one of the women got her thumb caught in a wringer and so mangled it that it was later amputated. Most of the ladies tried to console her about her loss, but one line sticks in Oliver’s memory: “You know, Claire, you’re going to miss that thumb. You’re going to miss that thumb every day of your life.”
Oliver believes very strongly in writing the truth, that a writer must have courage to do that, no matter who it hurts. The truth is most original, he says, and all great works are such. Oliver tells of a good and funny actress friend who told him recently, “I’m writing so honestly that I keep fainting.” “That’s as it should be,” he says. “I don’t think writing is too far from psychoanalysis, and I’ve never been psychoanalyzed and never want to be. I hope I can always do it through my writing.”
Who’s Happy Now was Oliver’s first and most successful play. It was produced on stages throughout the country, although it did not do well in New York. It is the story of a butcher, his girlfriend, his wife and their son. It tells something of Oliver’s father’s unfaithfulness and his mother’s dogged loyalty. His parents were finally estranged, and it was the play that helped restore his friendship with his father. “After seeing it, he laughed about it all afternoon and said at dinner, ’Well, boy, I’d still be laughing if the damn thing weren’t about me.’” But to this day, Oliver’s mother cannot bear to watch the play. “She can’t see past the pain it represents,” he says. “After she saw it the first time, she was devastated. I had to take her out and buy her a new coat to cheer her up. Betsy said, ’How dare she upset you! You had such a troubled childhood, and you turned it into art.’ But that was the difference between my mother and father. She was better educated, but he was natively intelligent. He could accept Who’s Happy on a higher level, not a literal one.”
Education and, later, writing, were Oliver’s tickets out of backwoods Texas. He remembers fantasizing that someday he’d make it as far as Dallas, and that when he grew up he’d write a book called Content to be Common, “all about those people who were content to stay in tiny little houses in that Godforsaken town in West Texas.” He was determined that his life would not be like theirs.
“I wanted to do everything differently than my father. I could never be unfaithful to my wife as he was. My father was not educated, so I was obsessed with education. I remember watching a man check out at the grocery store, buying a Time magazine. I thought, ’That’s what I want to be, the sort of man who reads Time’“
Since then, Time has written about Oliver, and the Dallas library keeps several copies of each of his most popular works. But Oliver is quick to acknowledge his most important success to date. “It’s terrifying to think where my life would have gone had I not met Betsy. In the end, nothing matters but connecting with somebody who enriches you, challenges you, makes you grow.” The admiration is shared. Betsy says: “I didn’t have any real career ambitions. If I hadn’t met Oliver, I would have probably just stayed at the News [where she worked summers during college], quite content just reporting stories. But through him, I ended up doing a lot of stretching, finding myself-doing a lot of things that, had I been making all my own decisions, I don’t think I would have done. I wouldn’t have had nearly so rich a life.”
It was out of frustration that these best friends teamed up in the first place. In 1959, Oliver took a job at The Dallas Morning News. He was helping to support his mother and his brother, Thomas, who has been confined to a wheelchair since he was stricken with polio during childhood. Oliver hoped to work in the paper’s amusements section, reviewing theater and film. Instead, he was assigned to the city desk. He had no training in journalism. Every time he got a different kind of story assignment, he’d run out to his car to read up on the style in a writing and reporting textbook he kept hidden there.
Meanwhile, Betsy, home for summers between terms at Hollins College in Virginia, worked in amusements. She was brimming with press passes to every show in town and frustrated because she wasn’t on the city desk. To make an obvious story short, they met and married after her college graduation.
The first years were lean. Oliver went to drama school at Yale, and Betsy worked on and off at the University Press. From there, they moved into a $65-a-month apartment in Greenwich Village with a bathtub in the kitchen and a $10-a-week grocery budget. During those years Oliver had his first play produced off Broadway. “At that time, I had no thought of going off in my own different direction,” Betsy says. “Now, everyone feels they have to pursue their own career, but in some ways I’m grateful for those years when not that much was expected of me. I learned so much. It’s too bad now that there is almost a sense of compromising yourself if you just follow your husband and stay home with your children awhile.”
But that loyalty was tested when Oliver’s play closed on Broadway and forced their move back to Dallas. “My life was tied with his. I realized then I had no fate of my own. We learned that theater gives you no control; you write a play, and it has to be produced. Very few other professions cause you to bare yourself and make a public sacrifice as the theater does. You are absolutely buffeted around.”
But years later, at home in Studio City, California, the Haileys’ lives are more comfortable. They say they like the distance of Los Angeles from Broadway; it keeps their lives a little more sane. They bought their house in 1968, and don’t plan to leave. Royalties go toward remodeling and family trips abroad. Through the entry way, the center of attention is an enormous self-portrait of daughter Kendell, 17, an intriguing and articulate young writer herself. She has taken time off between high school and college to educate herself, to write and to read. “I’ve started at the beginning of history,” she says, grinning. “I’ve been reading the Greeks, and they’re actually rather accessible.”
Another daughter, Brooke, 13, remembers when her mother began writing as when “we started getting frozen waffles.” Oliver’s mother and brother, Thomas, also live with the couple. Thomas has just completed his first book and is looking for a publisher. Their home is something of a cottage industry, with every member doing different chores-typing, cleaning, cooking. And critiquing one another’s work. Kendall says: “I grew up thinking everybody was a writer. When Mom goes into the kitchen to write in the morning, I like to creep out to the patio with a legal pad and spend as much of the morning as I’m awake writing. My parents have always taken us very seriously. Our opinions were incredibly highly valued. They show us their work, and everyone’s comment is respected in the same way. But Mom shows me her work before she shows it to Dad. I’m not so tough a judge. It’s like I’m the minor judge before she goes before the major critic.”
Twenty-four years after Betsy and Oliver began their lives together, the buffeting in the theater is no more gentle or predictable. Betsy says she feels she is exactly the same person she was in the third grade. Her two best-selling novels (the second was Life Sentences in 1981) haven’t changed her life much. “I don’t know anybody who really feels success. I’m always measuring myself against my next project.” But the Haileys’ attitudes have changed. “In the early days, we used to think the success or failure of a play would change our life,” Betsy says. “Now our lives are what we want them to be; we don’t want them changed.”
THREE DAYS AFTER it opened, the fate of the play, A Woman of Independent Means, hung in the balance. On that Friday morning, May 4, New York Times critic Frank Rich published his theater review: “Into every Broadway season, a little total insanity must fall, and this season’s quotient has just fallen, with a thud, at the Biltmore Theater.”
Similar notices appeared in other New York publications. But the word-of-mouth reviews continued to be marvelous. For a while, the crowds kept coming, and the Haileys hoped that the popularity of the book would keep the theater full. Since the play did not close as soon as the negative reviews appeared, A Woman became the second longest running new American play of the season. But it’s almost impossible for a show to succeed without critical acclaim and finally, on May 20, the play closed. The Haileys are at work now planning a national tour of A Woman. Dallas is a certain stop, although the dates have not been set. Oliver’s play, Father’s Day, is being considered for the fall schedule at the Dallas Theater Center.
Meanwhile, Betsy Hailey has settled back into her kitchen in Studio City. She hasn’t read any of the bad reviews and doesn’t plan to, but says she heard enough to get the idea. “I don’t plan to cross the Mississippi again,” she says.
She has nearly finished the rough draftof her third book and according to Kendelland Oliver, the third is her best work ever.It’s about a contemporary marriage. .. herown.