Barbara Kahn Blog #2

During the early 1990’s I would spend New Year’s Day at the
home of Barbara Barondess, who hosted an annual party. The gathering was
intergenerational—from Abe Feder, the father of theatrical lighting already in
his 90’s, to 20-somethings and those of us who fell somewhere between. Abe
would regale us with theater stories from way back, stopping occasionally to
flirt with one of the young women. Many who attended are now gone, but there
are others like me who recall our late friend Barbara Barondess. She loved to
tell her life story—it was an incredible journey—yet always remembered to ask
how my mother was doing. In her life, she had been surrounded with stellar
friends like Garbo, Harlow and Monroe, but she treated me with equal
friendship. No one was more worthy of courtesy or attention than anyone else. I
once had a play reading during frigid winter weather. Many people cancelled,
and I understood, but Barbara Barondess, already in her late 80’s, showed up
for me.

Barbara had more spirit and strength than any human being I
have known or known about. After breaking her hip, she was up and about without
a walker in less than a year. She bounced back from a major stroke with the accompanying
aphasia and memory loss. I went to visit her during her recovery. She was in
her nineties by then, living in a large apartment on 57th St.  There was assorted memorabilia from her life, 
arranged on a living room table. She told me to take whatever I wanted. I
suspected it was her way of making certain I would return. I told her I didn’t
need anything. She offered a signed photograph of Jed Harris, notorious
Broadway producer long before my time. “But it’s signed to you,” I said. She replied,
“It’s only signed to Barbara, no last name, so you can have it.” She told me
that Jed Harris had a reputation as a mean, sadistic person. He was also a
womanizer who seduced a number of actresses, including Barbara Barondess. Believing
that his feelings for her were honest, one day Barbara went to his office
unannounced. The door to his inner office was closed, but she could hear him
and Ruth Gordon talking about her, laughing at her gullibility. She turned
around and walked out—from his office and the relationship.

Barbara was married four times—from a marriage that lasted
only a few days to one that lasted a few years. She once told me, “I don’t know
why I thought I had to marry them, I should have just gone away for the

When the Film Forum screened Queen Christina with Garbo, the
manager invited Barbara to attend, since she had played the chambermaid in the
movie. I joined her and a few other friends. The rest of the audience was
mostly young film buffs. Barbara was invited to speak after the movie. She
climbed the stairs to the stage, shedding years with each step, and told the
audience about making the movie with Garbo and about their enduring friendship.

I loved spending time with her. Her stories of Broadway and
Hollywood were enthralling, and her encouragement of my own work was loving and
generous. Barbara used to invite me for dinner. She loved to cook. I said to her on one occasion, “I wish I could have met you sooner, maybe I could have met Garbo.” She replied, “Why would you want to meet her? She was an emotional miser. She was my friend for fifty years, and she made my life miserable for 47 of them.” When I gasped, she continued, “She used to call me, begging ‘Barbara, meet me for coffee, I’m so bored.’ I would tell her, ‘Greta, I have things to do. You haven’t had a life since 1942.'” 

After four successful careers—Broadway, Hollywood, design and
journalism—she created the Torch of Hope Foundation to nurture artists at all
levels of their career path. When I received the Torch of Hope Award from the
foundation, it was also given that year to Tony Randall, John Beal and Irma St.
Paule. If we’re only allowed one person like Barbara Barondess in our lifetime,
then I have reached my quota.