A Remembrance and Appreciation of Julie Harris

by Lynn on August 23, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Julie HarrisBecause I was more than a year behind in my paper version of my Slotkin Letter I lost the chance of commemorating the passing of Julie Harris last August 24, 2013. I am making up for it with this remembrance on the eve of her passing one year ago.

Julie Harris came to the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in 1971 in a tour of And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little by Paul Zindel. It was about three schoolteacher sisters, Catherine, Anna and Ceil. Catherine and Anna took care of their dying mother in their small apartment. Ceil was nowhere to be found since she ran off to marry Catherine’s boyfriend. Catherine coped with her mother’s death by drinking (‘a little). Anna had a nervous breakdown, became a crazed hypochondriac and is also on leave because she allegedly molested a young boy. Ceil comes home to convince Catherine (who is drunk for the whole play) to have Anna committed. In this tour, Kim Hunter played Catherine. Julie Harris played Anna. Kim Hunter was wonderful. But Julie Harris was something else.

To see that titan of the theatre for the first time, in that play, was astonishing for me. Diminutive, fragile looking, quiet-voiced and fierce, that was Julie Harris in that role. Anna refused to wear anything that was made from animals. A character challenged her and said her shoes were leather, to which Anna shot back in a loud voice, through clenched teeth, “Leatherette!” That word shot up to “The Gods” as the second balcony of the Royal Alexandra is known, hurled like an Olympic javelin thrower and impaled itself in the back wall at the top of the theatre. Stunning. There was also a point in the play where Anna broke down into heartbreaking sobs that was true and gut wrenching. I saw her do that play a few times. “Leatherette” was always frightening when I heard it and the breakdown in sobs always came at the same point and was always true.

I was a theatre student at York University studying the History, Theory and Criticism of the Theatre. I wanted to be a theatre critic. Around that time I decided to interview actors/actresses on their opinions of critics and criticism. Before I reviewed actors in their job I thought it wise to ask them what they expected of what I hoped would be my job.

I asked Julie for an interview. She said yes. I went down to the Royal Alexander after her Saturday matinee, tape recorder and questions at the ready. I was sick with nerves. Julie put me at ease. She answered every question with thoughtfulness and intelligence. She has said that the theatre to her was like finding God, a safe place, a place that you worship in. That came across in everything she said and how she said it, that purring whisper of a voice.

At one point I must have said that I had expected too much from a situation or person. She replied, quietly, “You must never expect anything from anybody.” This was not said with disappointment or negativity. It was said with wisdom and understanding of the world. I never, ever forgot it. She finally had to remind me, “Now it’s quarter of six…” meaning the poor woman had to leave the theatre to go and eat and then come back for the evening show! I was so caught up in the experience I lost track of time. I sent Julie a thank you card for her time and her wonderful answers and included a rose as well. I got the following card in reply:

“January 7, 1972 on note paper with Julie Harris at the top.

Dear Lynn,

Thank you so much for the lovely red rose. It transforms the dressing room. I had been longing for a flower. How kind you are.
I feel very strongly you will have success, and it will give me great pleasure to read your reviews in the years to come.
Love and best wishes always,


That was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted more than 30 years. At the beginning it was always “ Dear Miss Harris” from me until in one card she said, “It’s Julie now, and Lynn.” Over the years that turned into ‘Dearest Jules….Love Lynnie” When I started writing my Slotkin Letter in hard copy, first hand written, then on a typewriter then computer, Julie always got a copy. In a way her prophecy came true.

We remembered each other’s birthdays, holidays (Christmas, Easter, Chanukah, Thanksgiving etc.); we sent each other books. I got cards and letters from all over the world when she travelled to make films or did TV or plays etc. I sent her “good luck” Tootsie Pops on her opening nights and she even sent me all day suckers from wherever. Julie was a great re-cycler even before it was fashionable. I received letters on the backs of fancy wrapping paper, recycled envelopes, even brown paper bags. All in her distinctive large loopy but elegant handwriting.

I travelled to New York, Chicago, Boston, Buffalo and New Haven to name a few, to see her in plays. When she was playing on Broadway in In Praise of Love with Rex Harrison, I wrote to Julie that I would come for a weekend to New York and see it. She invited me to stay with her in Irvington-on-the-Hudson where she was living and take the train into New York in the mornings and then drive back with her after her show at night. What an offer! I took it.

Her bungalow was packed with early Americana furniture, mementoes from many theatre tours, trips and loved ones. I remember the mattress in ‘my’ room was wonderfully firm. The fridge was packed with more food than I ever saw in an fridge before or since, and she knew where everything was and what was in there. She always answered her own mail—there was no assistant at that time. And I remember ‘the hardware’. She gave me a tour of the house. She opened a closet and said, pointing up to a loaded shelf, “this is various….” And I finished….”hardware.” There on the shelf were assorted awards: Emmy Awards, Peabody Awards etc. The Tony Awards (five at the time) were on the mantle place in the living room.

Julie won almost every available acting award from the Tonys, six if you count the Honourary Tony for Lifetime achievement; The Kennedy Centre Honour etc. But the truly rare one was the Sarah Bernhardt Handkerchief. It’s a talisman noting excellence from an older actress to a younger one and it started with Sarah Bernhardt when she came to the States on a farewell tour in 1913. She saw Laurette Taylor in a special performance of Peg O’ My Heart after which Bernhardt wrote that Laurette Taylor “will become within five years the foremost actress in this country…All aspirants for the stage should take this young actress as their model..” Bernhardt had her maid give Laurette Taylor one of her handkerchiefs, with her name “Sarah” embroidered in one of the corners as a thank you and a token of appreciation of one great actress to another.

Laurette Taylor saw Helen Hayes act and passed on the handkerchief. Helen Hayes saw Julie Harris act and gave Julie the handkerchief who then passed in on to Susan Strasberg after Julie saw her in The Diary of Anne Frank. Strasberg then put it in the safe and gave it to nobody. Julie was a bit put out with this and said that that’s not what should happen; that it should be passed on. Strasberg never did and when she died her estate gave the handkerchief back to Julie, which I thought was classy and right. And then Julie gave it to Cherry Jones which is perfect.

When Julie was in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln on Broadway, I went to see it one Saturday matinee and went round to her dressing room to tell her how much I loved it. She asked if I was going to see the production of Much Ado About Nothing that was playing around the corner at the Winter Garden Theatre, with Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes, set in the early 1900s in America. I tried to waffle (Who wants to see Shakespeare when you can see something else?) and said I would think about it. That wasn’t good enough for Julie. She looked at me with her head cocked a bit sideways, almost whispering in that solemn, transported way, that the production was wonderful and I had to see it. She got dressed and took me by the hand to the box office of the theatre. She stood there and said to the nice ticket seller, “I’m Julie Harris, and I would like to buy a good seat to the show, for my friend here.” The man smiled slightly, knowing exactly who she was but not wanting to be rude or call attention to the situation. He sold Julie the ticket, a good one. She gave it to me. We went for supper. Then she went to her show and I trudged to mine (Shakespeare!! Sigh).

The production was totally, completely enchanting, gripping, funny, loving and one of the magical moments that has made me love Shakespeare since. I can even whistle the theme music that played that has stayed with me all those years. I flew out of the theatre to report back to Julie how much I loved it. She knew what she was doing, that blessed woman.

As is obvious, Julie was a huge champion and supporter of young talent and people starting out in the theatre. Clyde Talmadge was a young, untried playwright who sent Julie his play Under the Ilex about Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington. Julie agreed to be in a production of it in St. Louis. She then took it to the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven (where I saw it) where she played it with Leonard Frey.

She was a huge champion of Claudia Allen, a Chicago playwright, and starred in some of her plays at the Victory Gardens Theatre. Julie was doing a play of Allen’s and was about to set out for the theatre for the matinee when she had the stroke that in a way ended her acting career. Recovery was slow. She still went to the theatre and still championed theatre artists, but acting as we knew it was over. We still sent each other cards. Her hand writing was still strong, firm and graceful. I looked for signs of the stroke and couldn’t find any.

She lasted about another ten years. I had heard from a friend who was close to her that in the last year Julie was not doing too well. She was 87, still living in her home in Chatham, Massachusetts with live in help. But it was still a shock when I read that Julie died on August 24, 2013 of congestive heart failute.

Julie Harris was loved, revered, cherished, respected, held dear, and gave so selflessly to the theatre. Those who knew her held her deep in their hearts. I was lucky and blessed to have been one of them.

I miss you terribly Jules,

Love Lynnie.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kent James August 23, 2014 at 8:37 am



2 Shari Caldwell August 23, 2014 at 3:41 pm

This is so touching, Lynn. I feel privileged to be one of your friends, too.


3 Mary Lou Fallis August 25, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Thanks so much for taking the time and trouble to write this tribute. It was very touching and she was superb in everything.


4 Jennifer Parr August 30, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Thank you so much for this beautiful tribute to Julie Harris and for sharing your personal connection with her. I have always prized the knowledge that she starred as Juliet at “our” Stratford years ago in the early years of her career.


5 Susan Sutherland August 31, 2014 at 4:29 pm

This is one of the most moving and beautiful tributes I have ever read. Thank you.


6 Alan Petrucelli April 6, 2024 at 6:17 pm

I am writing Julie ‘s bio


7 Lynn April 6, 2024 at 9:23 pm

Looking forward to read it when it’s finished.