Polly Bergen: Actress on Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies list’
(See previous post: “Polly Bergen: ‘First American Woman President.’”) As discussed in the previous post, despite its deceptively progressive premise – the United States’ first woman president as a palpable reality – Kisses for My President, written by veteran Paramount screenwriter Claude Binyon (Search for Beauty, The Gilded Lily) and newcomer Robert G. Kane (whose sole other movie credit was the poorly received Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Western Villain), was an unabashedly reactionary, “traditional family values” effort. Ironically, in real life Polly Bergen was a liberal-minded, politically active Democrat.
At around the time Kisses for My President was released, Bergen, along with Gregory Peck, James Garner, and other Hollywood personalities, publicly came out against California’s Proposition 14, a 1964 ballot initiative that would have nullified the Rumford Fair Housing Act, thus paving the way for the return of racial discrimination in the state’s real estate market.
In the early ’70s, Bergen would contribute $2,800 to Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern’s campaign. McGovern, however, lost to his Republican opponent Richard Nixon.
Needless to say, the Nixon Administration didn’t care much for Bergen’s political views. As found in reports from the period, along with the likes of Hollywood celebrities Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Shirley MacLaine, Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster, and John Sturges; author Norman Lear; economist John Kenneth Galbraith; Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner; artist Georgia O’Keefe; business magnates Max Factor and George Soros; U.S. Representative Bella Abzug; computer pioneer Max Palevsky; journalist David Karr; and other prominent McGovern campaign contributors, Bergen was to have been an Internal Revenue Service target.
Equal Rights Amendment
Undaunted, Polly Bergen remained a vocal supporter of several causes reviled by right-wingers, among them the Equal Rights Amendment. “I’m a Southern Baptist from Bluegrass [Knoxville area], Tennessee, and the ERA makes sense to me,” she told United Press International in 1980.
She was equally supportive of women’s reproductive rights. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, when she was 17 she underwent an illegal abortion that, Bergen asserted, left her unable to ever bear children again. (She and Freddie Fields had two adopted children.)
In 2008, she actively supported presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. “She always thought a woman president in real life was long overdue,” said Bergen’s longtime friend and manager Jan McCormack.
Broadway and song recordings
Back to her show business career: Polly Bergen made her Broadway debut in the 1953 revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac, also featuring, among others, Harry Belafonte, Hermione Gingold, Orson Bean, Kay Medford, and Tina Louise. Bergen’s solo number was “I Dare to Dream.” According to online sources, working on Almanac put such a strain on her vocal cords that she had to undergo a throat operation.
By 1955, she was feeling well enough to record the album “Little Girl Blue,” featuring standards such as “Autumn Leaves,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and the title song.
Polly Bergen music albums from that period, for the Jubilee and Columbia labels, included the smash hit “Bergen Sings Morgan,” released at the time “The Helen Morgan Story” was broadcast; “The Party’s Over”; “My Heart Sings”; and, with fellow Broadway players Farley Granger and Hermione Gingold, “First Impressions,” from the 1959 musical of the same name, based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Bergen’s last album, “Act One, Sing Too,” came out in 1963.
By the late ’60s, her heavy smoking had taken its toll on her vocal cords. “I had a choice of quitting smoking or singing another chorus of ‘Night and Day,’ and I chose to continue smoking and quit singing,” she told CBS News’ Charles Osgood in 2001. “And it was a decision that I regretted from that day forward.”
At that time, she also told the New York Times’ James Gavin, “I loved smoking. The thing that made me stop was not the realization that I would die, but that I would live and be incapacitated.”
Singing ‘I’m Still Here’ in ‘Follies’ revival
Damaged vocal cords or no, also in 2001 a huskier-voiced, 70-year-old Polly Bergen was back on Broadway in a revival of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s hit musical Follies at the Belasco Theater. After reportedly having been refused an audition, she contacted Sondheim directly, ultimately getting hired for a key role.
“This is the first show I have ever auditioned for,” she recalled telling Sondheim and Follies casting director Jim Carnaham. “When I was young, they just gave me the lead. And when I got old, they wouldn’t see me at all.”
As has-been Hollywood star Carlotta Campion – played by Yvonne De Carlo in the original 1971 production – Bergen sang the show-stopper “I’m Still Here.” Theater critic and historian John Kenrick was impressed, writing that “Polly Bergen stops everything cold with ‘I’m Still Here,’ bringing a rare degree of introspection to a song that is too often a mere belt-fest.”
In Sondheim’s view, Bergen treated the song as if it were entirely “about her own life, not just about a star.” She earned a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, but lost the award to Cady Huffman for The Producers.
‘Cabaret’ revival, ‘Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks’
In 2002, Polly Bergen briefly replaced Carole Shelley in the role of Fraulein Schneider, the apartment owner who becomes involved with a Jewish shop owner as the Nazis come to power, in a revival of Cabaret starring Molly Ringwald.
The following year, she was back on Broadway, playing opposite Star Wars’ Mark Hamill in Richard Alfieri’s comedy Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. Additionally, Bergen had successful nightclub runs in New York City (“I know what you’re thinking. You thought I was dead, right?”) and Beverly Hills.
Also in 2003, health issues eventually forced her to withdraw from the Connecticut-based Goodspeed Musical’s production of Nan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn’s Camille Claudel, starring Linda Eder in the title role and Michael Nouri as Auguste Rodin. Bergen was replaced by Joan Copeland.
Five years later, Polly Bergen was back on stage, earning raves for her performance as Madame Armfeldt in the Baltimore Centerstage production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, also featuring Barbara Walsh and Maxwell Caulfield. “The talented cast includes Polly Bergen speaking with lived-in authority as Desiree’s elderly mother, Madame Armfeldt,” wrote Variety reviewer Mike Giuliano. “Bergen holds her own with the memory of the original Broadway star Hermione Gingold.”
Polly Bergen on television: ‘Desperate Housewives,’ ‘The Helen Morgan Story’
Polly Bergen began her lengthy – and to some extent prestigious – television career in 1950.
She won an Emmy for Best Actress in a Single Performance - Lead or Supporting – beating Julie Andrews, Helen Hayes, Teresa Wright, and Piper Laurie – for her portrayal of troubled torch singer Helen Morgan (Applause, Show Boat) in the 1957 Playhouse 90 episode “The Helen Morgan Story,” featuring veteran Sylvia Sidney as Morgan’s mother.
“Overnight, [‘The Helen Morgan Story’] made me a star,” she told the Hartford Courant‘s Susan Dunne in 2013. “It was one of those magical things you read about but don’t really believe actually ever happens, but it does and it did. … I was only cast because they couldn’t find anybody else to do it. I was the last person on Earth they wanted to do that part.”
‘The Winds of War,’ ‘Desperate Housewives’
In the ensuing five decades, Polly Bergen would be nominated for three other Emmy Awards:
- Best Supporting Actress for playing Robert Mitchum’s neglected wife (“probably the best work I’ve ever done”) who finds solace in a lover (Peter Graves) and then in alcohol, in the 1983 miniseries The Winds of War and its 1988 sequel War and Remembrance. Bergen would later say that Mitchum was instrumental in her getting the role, which had been previously intended for veteran blonde actresses such as Eva Marie Saint and Hope Lange.
- Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her work as Stella Wingfield, the mother of Felicity Huffman’s character, in Desperate Housewives (2007). As quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Huffman recalled Bergen as “’a great broad,’ as they said in the vernacular of her day, a wonderful actress and a lovely woman.”
‘To Tell the Truth’ and ‘The Polly Bergen Show’
Besides the aforementioned titles, Polly Bergen’s best-known television appearances included those on the following:
- The game-show To Tell the Truth (1956-61).
- The short-lived variety program The Polly Bergen Show (1957-58), at times featuring her father Bill – with whom she recorded the album “Polly and Her Pop” – and invariably ending with Bergen’s rendition of Jule Styne’s “The Party’s Over.”
- Dr. Kildare (1963), in a double role as both a hospital patient in need of a kidney transplant and the woman’s estranged sister.
In the ’70s, Bergen was seen in two all-star, at times surprisingly entertaining, TV movies:
- Ralph Senensky’s Death Cruise (1974), as one of the doomed cruise passengers, with Richard Long, Kate Jackson, Celeste Holm, Tom Bosley, and Edward Albert Jr.
- George McCowan’s Murder on Flight 502 (1975), playing opposite both old and new Hollywood names, ranging from Laraine Day, Ralph Bellamy, and Walter Pidgeon to Farrah Fawcett, George Maharis, and Sonny Bono.
Polly Bergen remained busy on TV, whether in supporting roles, as a game-show panelist, or as a guest star – e.g., in Touched by an Angel, Twice in a Lifetime, The Sopranos – all the way to the 2011 Desperate Housewives episode “Flashback,” in which Larry Hagman played her love interest.
In 1994, she wrote the story (adapted by Betty Goldberg), was featured in, and acted as executive producer of the TV movie Leave of Absence, about a married man (Brian Dennehy) who leaves his wife (Blythe Danner) to care for his mistress (Jacqueline Bisset), suffering from terminal cancer.
And four decades after Kisses for My President, Bergen had a recurring role in Rod Lurie’s series Commander in Chief (2005–2006). She played Kate Allen, mother of Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis), the first woman president of the United States.
In 1962, the year she made her big-screen comeback in Cape Fear, Polly Bergen published the first of her three self-help books, The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm. Four years later, she founded her own cosmetics venture, The Polly Bergen Company, which went from a small home business to a $6 million enterprise. “It was very difficult at the beginning,” she would recall decades later, “because everybody considered me just another bubble-headed actress.” In 1973, the company, which boasted the “Oil of the Turtle” brand, was sold to Fabergé.
For the record: Bergen’s other two books were Polly’s Principles: Polly Bergen Tells You How You Can Feel and Look as Young as She Does (1974), published when Bergen was in her mid-40s, and I’d Love To, But What’ll I Wear (1978). Here’s a Polly Bergen quote from Polly’s Principles:
Nakedness in broad daylight (if you’re not in bed with a lover) can be tough. I know. For years I couldn’t bring myself to look at my own naked body. My Southern Baptist upbringing was definitely Victorian about the human body, and nudity was not acceptable. Four years ago, things changed. …
Marriages and near-bankruptcy
Polly Bergen’s first husband was fellow Knoxville native and actor (and later – mostly TV – director and producer) Jerome Courtland (Falcon Crest, Knots Landing). Their four-year marriage ended acrimoniously in 1955.
Her second marriage (1956) was to producer and super-agent Freddie Fields (“the love of my life”), who had been previously married to 1930s child actress Edith Fellows (Pennies from Heaven, Little Miss Roughneck), and for whom the Southern Baptist Bergen reportedly converted to Judaism.
Among Fields’ movie credits as a producer/executive producer are Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), Crimes of the Heart (1986), and Glory (1989), while his extensive list of clients included, at some time or other, the following:
Marilyn Monroe. Robert Redford. Peter Sellers. Woody Allen. Steven Spielberg. Barbra Streisand. Henry Fonda. Fred Astaire. George Lucas. Steve McQueen. Richard Gere. Jack Nicholson. Francis Ford Coppola. Jackie Gleason. Mel Gibson.
Besides, Fields was one of the people credited for the resurgence of Judy Garland in the 1960s.
Polly Bergen and Freddie Fields were divorced in 1975. He died of lung cancer in Dec. 2007.
Entrepreneur and attorney Jeff Endervelt was Polly Bergen’s husband no. 3 (1982). In the 2013 Hartford Courant interview, Jan McCormack recalled that at Bergen’s wedding ceremony she answered the usual “I do,” followed by “Oh, fuck.” The latter phrase may have been a premonition of what was to come.
According to The Guardian, while married to Endervelt “she co-signed his loans and gave him millions to invest from her beauty company profits.” In 2001, Bergen explained to the New York Times: “He would come home and say, ‘Honey, sign this.’ I wouldn’t even look at it. Because you trust your husband.”
In 1987, during the Ronald Reagan presidency, the stock market collapsed, wiping out the couple’s investments. They were divorced three years later.
Endervelt “vanished,” leaving Bergen so heavily in debt – the couple were sued by New York City’s National Bank – that in order to avoid bankruptcy she was forced to sell her Park Avenue apartment and other belongings. She moved in with the Los Angeles-based Jan McCormack, who found her a number of TV gigs, and later settled in Montana for several years.
Polly Bergen sings’ ‘I’m Still Here’ at the 2001 Drama Desk Awards ceremony.
Auditioning for some 12-year-old idiot
“I just couldn’t bear the humiliation of what I was doing,” she told the New York Times. “I just can’t stand in these lines with 35 actresses who’ve each got 63 million miles of film, waiting to audition for some idiot who’s 12 years old, who wants to know what all of us have done. Of course, as soon as I moved to Montana, I got four or five television movies in a row, because the minute you’re not there they think you’re not needy, so they want you.”
That took place about a decade before her triumphant return to Broadway in Follies, in which she got to sing, “Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here. Look who’s here, I’m still here.”
She was indeed still here in early 2014, when gossip columnist Liz Smith reported that the Cape Fear leading lady was working on a tell-all autobiography to be titled Welcome to Pollywood.
As per Smith, the Bergen autobio would feature “everyone from Bugsy Siegel to Barbra Streisand to Ardeshir Zahedi to Elizabeth Taylor and Harry Belafonte,” in addition to stories “from Polly’s taking LSD with Cary Grant to playing Chris Colfer’s (Glee) grandma in 2012’s Struck By Lightning.” It’s unclear how far along the book was at the time of Bergen’s death.
The secret of her longevity
Reminiscing about her multifaceted show business career, Polly Bergen, somewhat misremembering the size of Joan Crawford’s role in The Caretakers, told the Hartford Courant:
… I think there are a lot of people who start out and become stars and then they demand to stay stars, and nobody can stay a star. It just doesn’t work. I have a poster in the other room of a movie that I did in which I had the lead with Robert Stack and Joan Crawford has a cameo. Joan Crawford has a cameo! She wanted to keep working. She didn’t need the money. A lot of people won’t do that. They won’t go there. And so they disappear. … You couldn’t suddenly play a character part if you used to be the lead, because people would say ‘what happened to her career?’ I never really worried about that.
There are plenty of online rumors and stories about Polly Bergen coming out as a lesbian in her 70s. However, I could find no confirmation from any reliable sources. And nothing from Bergen herself.
‘The Helen Morgan Story’ movie, conversion to Judaism
Gena Rowlands plays Bergen’s role in the film version of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, and co-starring Cheyenne Jackson. Earlier this year, Leslie Caron took on the part in a Southern California revival at the Laguna Playhouse.
 Curiously, Polly Bergen’s television version of Helen Morgan’s life was broadcast the same year that Ann Blyth starred in Michael Curtiz’s Morgan biopic. Also titled The Helen Morgan Story, the film focused on the relationship between the singer and a fictitious con-man (Paul Newman).
 In case Polly Bergen truly did convert to Judaism following her marriage to Freddie Fields, it’s unclear whether she remained Jewish after she and Fields parted ways. See her 1980 ERA-related quote “I’m a Southern Baptist from Bluegrass, Tennessee, …” found elsewhere in this post.
Image of Polly Bergen, Doug Savant, and Felicity Huffman in Desperate Housewiveso: Ron Tom / Disney / ABC.
Polly Bergen Follies image via the Roundabout Theatre Company blog.
Polly Bergen and Geen Davis Commander in Chief image: Michael Desmond / ABC, via Meredy.
Unless otherwise noted, Polly Bergen quotes via Susan Dunne’s Hartford Courant interview.
Stephen Sondheim, Follies casting, and “I know what you’re thinking…” quotes via James Gavin’s New York Times piece.