I have been married many times, mothered many children, strode down four aisles and ran headlong down another. I've worn many beautiful gowns, returned many gold wedding bands, endured long bouts of labor and lots of Lamaze. But I have never been a mother, a divorcée nor a bigamist. And this is not a riddle.
As an actor, I experienced courtships, nuptials, pregnancy and childbirth as scripted. My wedding ceremonies had lots of light and sound men, camera tracks and cables, and many well-dressed strangers as guests, but not one member of my own family was ever invited. Three of my husbands died prematurely: one in a drama, two in comedies. I pretended I loved them all, especially the ones I lost, in that intense, temporary way that we actors love. Those staged lives rerun sometimes in my mind, but better still, when they rerun on television, I get paid for them. For a long period of my life, all that faked love left me with little but a pang of longing.
At 22, as a first-time faux bride in "Finian's Rainbow,"I strolled down a theater aisle, up onto a stage, misty for a ceremony I was sure I'd have one day, with my own proud father giving me away instead of an actor in greasepaint and a rented top hat. I imagined how I'd feel pledging my heart to one man forever and ever, beyond a run-of-the-play contract. Knowing how it felt to feel that way made my real-life relationships seem empty and cold by comparison, especially without a lush score played beneath.
How I longed to marry the character George Seurat in Stephen Sondheim's musical "Sunday in the Park with George." I was so in love with the actor's tenor voice in a bad case of location romance, about which actors must be vigilant. Boy, did I cry at that final curtain, and a week after that, the attachment vaporized. My character, Seurat's model, Dot, ended up in the story in a fallback marriage with Louie the baker to father her love child. And the pain of settling for less haunted me beyond that production had perhaps kept me from making a mistake in any short-lived, starter marriage.
Losing one husband to a brain tumor, and sobbing with my temporary little boy beside death's pretend bedside, sobered me as to how difficult the loss of a loved one might be, how difficult it would be to bear up as a suddenly single parent with a deeply aggrieved child.
By day, a make believe bride; by night, lonely. I rehearsed all the feelings of love in so many stories for so many years that I wondered if that show would ever open.
On one series, a handsome plastic surgeon performed an emergency nose job on my character when she fell down face first in a diner. He proposed to the results of his masterpiece right on the spot. After that same handsome actor keeled over during a scene with us pledging our troth, the writers wrote me a rebound wedding to another man … who died on our honeymoon.
Out of pity for me when the run of the show ended, the costume designer slipped this still single, 40-year-old spinster one of the wedding gowns to keep. It was the most beautiful of all, with a pearl bodice, draped in a soft and feminine way, cut to fit me. I gasped in gratitude.
"You know what, Bill?" I tremulously told him. "I am going to wear this gown someday for real."
"Yes, darling," he placated. "Of course, you are."
I kept this beautiful reminder wrapped in plastic in my closet like Miss Haversham in "Great Expectations." I would take it out every year and renew my vow to wear it. For 20 years, it seemed a patient harbinger of hope.
Then, long after I'd resigned myself to old maid-dom, a wonderful man, who I loved more than all the men I ever married, proposed to me in a hotel bathtub. I can still recall what I was wearing—nothing but a shower cap and glasses, with no makeup. The lighting was terrible, the sound of an overhead heater deafening. It wasn't very theatrical or romantic, but it was gloriously, palpably real.
I rescued the relic of that gown from the closet, pulled it from its plastic and took it in my arms. Still youthful and white, she seemed to beam back at me. I tried her on, and she sighed and held me close. As I had lost an inch of height in the new millennium, I had to have her hemmed, and her shoulder pads removed as fashions had changed. But the gown, my fiancé and the event were a perfect fit.
On a sunny summer day, we married and I became a wife and an honest-to-goodness stepmother for the first time in any medium. We had a wedding far more beautiful than all the fake ones, with no makeup or hair person to touch us up. Our friends and family gave us an ovation as we came rollicking up the aisle. My gown was incredibly happy, tossing her skirts as she was roundly complimented, finally out of the closet for good.
We have replayed "Our Wedding: The Movie" shot on a single camera on our wedding day at each of our three anniversaries. I still cry. How I loved getting married, every single time, but, frankly, I don't mind if I never have to do it again.