Back in ’06, when I was researching the book, my one regret was that the project hadn’t crystallized in time for me to meet Estelle in person. By that time, Estelle was suffering the advanced effects of Lewy Body dementia, a diagnosis her son Carl Gettleman and caretaker Paul Chapdelaine clarified for me (earlier reports had publicized what then turned out to be a misdiagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.)
I did get to sit down with Bea Arthur, with Betty White, and with Rue McClanahan – and those are memories that will last me for a lifetime. I blabbed with Bea over a bottle of white wine, saw Betty‘s sharp wit in action, and even got Rue to do Blanche for me, talking about her “many, many men.” But to do justice in the book to Estelle – that mystery woman who in 1985 had come seemingly out of nowhere not just to nab a plum part in an enduring classic sitcom, but to hold her own against three of TV’s veteran heavyweights – I was going to have to work at it.
And so, I met with Carl, and with Paul, with Estelle’s former assistant Richard Weaver, and with a few other longtime friends – many of them gay men – who helped flesh out a portrait of their beloved mother and friend. And I have to say, whereas I may have gone into this process adoring mostly Sophia, I emerged from my interviews with these men with a new appreciation for the woman who had lived so brilliantly beneath that white wig.
Estelle had toiled for years in, as Rue recalls, “off, off, off, off-Broadway productions” in New York, where she raised her family, including a second son, Barry. Only in the mid 1980s, when her portrayal of Harvey Fierstein’s character’s mother in Torch Song Trilogy brought her to national attention, did Estelle hit the big time. But the Big Time never changed this tiny lady. She remained always who she was: a bargain shopper, a soulful Jewish cook, a mother hen, and as the theme song goes, a pal and a confidante. From her days in theater, she had befriended many gay men. And when so many of those friends (and her own young nephew) started dying, Estelle didn’t worry about losing her new-found star power by backing a then-taboo cause; instead, she became one of Hollywood’s earliest and most tireless celebrity AIDS fundraisers, providing not just laughter but hope for so many.
Estelle was a lady who knew how to have a good time – Richard Weaver remembers days when this little, middle-aged lady would routinely hit the town in West Hollywood with a rotating posse she jokingly called her “five fag minimum.” In the late ‘90s, a volunteer theater group called Charity Parody put on spoofs of famous musicals to raise money for an AIDS hospice. As the troupe’s director Randy Brenner later told me, Estelle came to every single production; you could hear her laugh in the crowd.
From the very beginning of her time on The Golden Girls, Estelle was bedeviled by stage fright, and had trouble remembering her lines. A woman modest – perhaps too modest – about her talent, Estelle was very open about her fears. Now, looking back, her co-stars tell me they wonder whether Estelle’s memorization problems were just common stage fright, or were actually the beginning of the medical problem which ultimately took her life many, fading years later.
We’ll never know. But what we can clearly see, more than a decade after Estelle put down Sophia’s trademark straw purse for the very last time, is that this Golden Girl was a woman with the humanity to be scared, the humility to admit it -- and the talent to rise above it all. And so I’m writing today to share those thoughts, and my condolences, with so many other fans who will forever miss a woman who thankfully will live on in reruns and in our hearts.
For Estelle, from those millions who will miss you,
Thank You for Being a Friend.