Excerpted from Women in Hats by Judy Sheehan. Copyright © 2008 by Judy Sheehan. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CONVERSATION WITH Judy Sheehan
Women in Hats gives us an exclusive peek into the world of show business as we are drawn into the story of Leigh Majors and her relationship with her famous mother, Bridie Hart. Author Judy Sheehan caught up with her old friend Elizabeth Dennehy to talk about the book, actors, writing, and life. Elizabeth’s father is actor Brian Dennehy. Can the daughter of a famous actor bring us new insights to the story of Leigh and Bridie? Here is their conversation:
Elizabeth Dennehy: So, here you are writing about actors.
Judy Sheehan: Hey, they make good subjects. They supply their own drama, don’t you think?
ED: Yes, I think I’ve seen a little bit of that. My father, my husband, me–we’re all actors. As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but wonder: Are you maybe having a little fun at our expense? Do you have a sort of love/hate relationship with actors?
JS: You know that I started out as an actor–full disclosure time: you and I studied theater in college together and then we were in Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding.
ED: And our friendship survived all that!
JS: Thank God. Well, when I started writing plays, I switched to the other side of the audition table and got to see actors in a whole new light. It’s an irrational business and it can easily bring out the crazy in people.
ED: Okay, I think I’ve seen a little bit of that, too. . . .
JS: It’s true! The ones who are successful constantly worry that they aren’t successful enough. And the ones who really are struggling–they have to be so emotionally resourceful just to keep going.
ED: At the start of the book, Leigh and Bridie are practically estranged. It was a very chilly relationship. But by the end, I felt like Bridie was really trying to connect with Leigh. Did you know that this would be the outcome when you started, or did you make it up as you went along?
JS: I worked from an outline that reads a bit like a choppy short-story version of the book. I didn’t know every detail of the outcome, but I knew that Leigh had to forgive her mother, especially before becoming a mother herself. And Bridie had to make an effort to redeem herself as a mother; she had to help her daughter in a very real way. The unresolved anger and sadness that these two women carried could poison their lives if they let it continue. There is that old saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and hoping that the other guy dies. That’s exactly what’s going on with these two.
ED: Bridie surprised me at times. She didn’t raise a big stink when Leigh ﬁred her in Florida, and then she actually stayed with her daughter all through that massive confrontation in Central Park. What’s going on with her?
JS: She’s trying to be a good mother, and she really does care what Leigh thinks of her. If Lilly had lived, she and Bridie might have ended up as best friends, and Leigh might have gotten left out. I like to think that Lilly would have worked to pull her sister into the family circle. But now Bridie needs to repair her relationship with Leigh–and she’s doing this in her own slightly crazy way. She can’t run to the producers and complain about being ﬁred, because it was her own daughter who ﬁred her. It’s much too personal, and it’s so humiliating.
When Leigh and Bridie have their big confrontation after the opening night, I think that’s the moment when Bridie really steps up. She takes all of her daughter’s anger. She doesn’t hide or run away. What’s more, she helps Leigh to accept Lilly’s death. It’s one of the few times in her life that Bridie is really putting her daughter’s needs ahead of her own ego.
ED: I really enjoyed the way that Bridie’s actions were always captured as stage directions, and you comment on her line readings. Why does that ﬁnal scene turn into an actual play?
JS: I think that’s part of how Leigh sees her mother–always performing. She always frames her mother in that context. In the big ﬁnal confrontation, when Leigh is drunk and ﬁnally letting everything out to her mother, it’s not an ordinary conversation. It’s a scene. Leigh sees it that way in the moment, and she’ll always remember it that way, so I wrote it that way. This is one of the aspects of the book that I didn’t plan, you know. As I got into the emotional heat of that chapter, it just made sense to me to let it play as a theater scene. When I read it now, it still seems a little hallucinatory, but I think it really works.
ED: Speaking of hallucinatory, talk to me about Lilly coming back in visions to Leigh.
JS: I think that was a sign of Leigh starting to thaw, so to speak. She’s kind of shut down and stiff at the start of the book. She isn’t very accessible. That’s one of the factors that destroys her marriage. She just can’t be fully present emotionally. But Leigh’s love for her sister runs very deep, and her grief is almost more than she can bear. When she starts to see Lilly–on the street or in her dreams–she is starting to unclench and open her heart. In the end, I don’t know if Lilly’s presence in Central Park is real or imagined. I’m going to leave that up to you.
ED: Sometimes I got the feeling that Bridie was jealous of Leigh.
JS: Yes, she deﬁnitely was. When it comes to daily life, Bridie doesn’t have to play by the rules because, hey, she’s a star. She gets away with terrible selﬁshness and bitchiness. We get to see ﬂashes of Leigh’s childhood, and it really isn’t pretty. Bridie has quite a mean streak. Sometimes the rules of common decency just don’t apply to her.
ED: But it seems as though Leigh really lets go of the rules when she goes to Jupiter, Florida. She ﬁres her mother, rewrites her husband’s play, and has an affair. She really does become Bridie, if only for that moment. Is that the only way for her to understand and forgive her mother?
JS: Maybe it isn’t the only way, but I think that Leigh’s inner Bridie was bubbling under the surface for years, just waiting to get out. Once it emerged, she and Bridie could connect, minus all of the hidden resentment and scorn. She was so determined never to be like her mother, something ﬁnally had to give.
I don’t know if we all become our mothers, but certainly a lot of us go down that road whether we want to or not. Sometimes I hear my mother’s voice when I speak to my daughter, and I wonder, Who said that? But, of course, my mother was nothing like Bridie Hart. She was married to my father for over ﬁfty years and never ever put a toe in show business. But she had twelve children (I was number ten), and I think that this made her larger than life. She wasn’t just a person, she was a force of nature.
ED: Did you grow up wishing that your parents were famous?
JS: No, I grew up wishing that I could be famous. I had a lot of conﬁdence in my acting ability, but the more I worked at it, the less I enjoyed it. Today, when I look at the actors whose work I really admire, I’m absolutely in awe of them. How do they do it? I haven’t got a clue. And as for fame, boy, did I have a change of heart about that one. Today, I happily hide behind my books and have no desire for that kind of fame or recognition. It seems to be toxic, not to mention exhausting.
ED: But wouldn’t it be fun to go to the movie premiere of Women in Hats?
JS: Oh, my, yes. But what would I wear?
ED: I’d loan you something.
JS: Thanks. You have beautiful clothes.
ED: But tell me, who would play Bridie?
JS: Meryl Streep. Why not dream large? And it would be sort of perfect, because Bridie has a touch of the Shirley MacLaine mother character from Postcards from the Edge. Meryl Streep played the daughter in that one. Can’t she play the mother in mine?
When I was writing the character, I started out with a picture of Bette Davis in All About Eve, which is a wonderful movie. But somewhere along the line, Bridie became her own person, with her own voice and her own look. It’s a little bit like seeing a picture develop. The pale outlines give way to speciﬁc detail.
ED: Could I play Leigh?
JS: Consider it done. In exchange for the dress you’re going to loan me for the premiere.
ED: Okay, so let’s get back to Bridie as a mother. She doesn’t create a very good role model for Leigh, who will become a mother at the end of the book. Bridie has always put her own needs before everyone else’s.
JS: And I’m a bit nervous for Leigh, that she’ll go in the other direction. She might become a martyr-mother who is all about self-sacriﬁce. She’ll have Maddie and James to keep her in check, and she can always look in on Women in Hats to remind her of all that she went through during that play. So, she should be all right.
ED: Do we always have to choose between what we want and what’s best for our children?
JS: It’s a balancing act, isn’t it? The in-ﬂight safety messages on the airplanes always tell us to put our oxygen masks on before we try to help anyone else. That’s because we’d be pretty useless to our kids or any other people if we were unconscious. I think that this metaphor applies to life on the ground. We have to take good care of our children, but we have to model good self-care for them. Sometimes I really push the limits of my physical stamina so that I can work, write, and be a good mother. But I try–I really try–to ask myself if I want my daughter to grow up and treat herself the way that I am treating myself.
ED: All the good stuff in life is so challenging. You’ve taken on quite a few challenges, so could you compare them a bit? Is it more difﬁcult to write a play, or a novel? And how does parenting compare to all this writing?
JS: Parenting doesn’t compare at all. It’s monolithic. Anyone who claims that it’s easy isn’t doing it right. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s all-consuming, relentless, and by far the most exciting, fulﬁlling adventure I’ve ever had.
Within the world of writing, I have to say that novels are the most challenging form I’ve ever encountered. Maybe I’m just looking at my playwright days through rose-colored myopia, but a novel is so much like creating a universe. A play allows so much more collaboration and contribution from actors, directors, designers, and the audience. But a novel puts the responsibility squarely on the author’s shoulders. It’s daunting, to say the least.
ED: You said that the ﬁrst draft of this book was so bad, you couldn’t even submit it to your editor. How did you prevent yourself from crawling into a cave in a fetal position and withering away?
JS: By the skin of my teeth. Remember, I’m starting to turn into my mother, right? Well, she could teach a master class in endurance and perseverance. So, I just got stubborn about it, and wouldn’t let go. Once I understood the missing ingredient in the story, I rewrote the book from top to bottom.
ED: What was missing?
JS: In the ﬁrst draft, there was no miscarriage, no DES, none of that. And really, that’s the volcanic center of the anger Leigh has for her mother.
ED: I can’t imagine the book without that element. How did you end up adding it?
JS: I happened to see a documentary about women dealing with infertility. The ﬁlmmakers followed a woman who had suffered several miscarriages due to a medication that her mother had taken during pregnancy. The woman was now bedridden for nine months, surrounded by very intimidating medical equipment, all in an effort to carry this pregnancy to term. The medical care was all paid for by the woman’s mother. She looked like someone who might never recover from the load of guilt that she was carrying. She was willing to do anything to make this up to her daughter. Once I made the connection between that mother-daughter and the mother-daughter I was creating, all the pieces fell into place. The second draft was much better than the ﬁrst. And the third draft was better than the second.
But Bridie is a very different kind of mother than the one in that documentary. She isn’t forthcoming about the DES, and she isn’t someone who likes to be seen in any kind of harsh light. She doesn’t want to own up to any of the mistakes that she made as a mother, but this is a mistake that will haunt her.
ED: How did you know that the offspring of famous people are not all as lucky as one might think?
JS: I remember, years ago, you told me that when you were really feeling desperate at an audition, you’d say, “I’m Brian Dennehy’s daughter,” as if that would impress them enough to give you the job. I replied that when I was desperate at an audition, I’d say, “I’m Brian Dennehy’s daughter’s friend.” Neither of those lines did us much good, I think. In the end, it didn’t matter who your father was. You always had to prove yourself in every audition, and you still do.
I like to think that it all balances out for us: that the people who are the offspring of celebrities get the same mix of good stuff and not-so-good stuff, which is just an inevitable part of life. But fame itself just seems to be some weird viral factor that can’t be controlled.
ED: Would you discourage your daughter from a life on the stage?
JS: I have to be honest here: yes. It’s just too insane and scary. I’ll admit to being an overprotective mother on this one. But I live in New York City, and this town eats actors up and then spits them into the Hudson. It’s kind of awful. How could I let my kid face that kind of life?
On the other hand, I think that she’s a mini-Renaissance woman. She’s so good at so many things. She’s smart, she’s musical, and she’s a really gifted artist. She’s also gorgeous, sweet, funny, and kind.
ED: And you’re being totally objective here, right?
1. From early childhood, Leigh is determined to distinguish herself from Bridie. But are there early signs that she is her mother’s daughter? What are they?
2. Bridie and Frank both made a lot of mistakes. They were self-involved and occasionally self-destructive. But ultimately, Leigh has turned out to be a substantial person living a full, creative life. Was Bridie truly a bad mother? Was Frank a good father? What does it mean to be a good parent or a bad one?
3. Michael realizes his dream of writing a Broadway play, but why does he offer this as a gift to Leigh? How might this characterize their relationship throughout the book?
4. Leigh’s miscarriage devastates her marriage, but it takes her quite a while to accept this fact. If Leigh and Michael could go back and make new choices, could their marriage have been saved, or are there events that a marriage simply can’t survive?
5. Leigh has created a surrogate family for herself, with Kendall as her mother and Maddie as her sister. In what ways have you created your own family?
6. At the airport en route to Jupiter, Florida, Leigh believes that she sees her dead sister, Lilly. She then sees Lilly in a dream, and in a restaurant. What is the importance of these sightings?
7. In Jupiter, Leigh betrays her husband’s trust: she begins an affair with James and she turns Michael’s play–his baby–into her play. What factors prompted this change in Leigh? And do you think this is an aberration, or has Leigh changed forever?
8. Is James the right match for Leigh? Will they be together ten years from now?
9. Why does the ﬁnal confrontation between mother and daughter transform from a narrative into a play? How does it illuminate the scene or the inner lives of the characters? And why do you think Lilly is present in this scene?
10. Does Bridie help Leigh to accept herself and to accept her sister’s death? Does Bridie redeem herself in the end? If you were in Leigh’s shoes, what sort of relationship would you maintain with Bridie?