RIP Jill Clayburgh: A Good Neighbor, A National Treasure
In northwestern Connecticut, you become accustomed to seeing Broadway and Hollywood stars without their makeup. At the post office and polling place, you see actors and actresses who are frequently nominated for Tony, Emmy and Academy Awards. These men and women rarely get gossiped about in tabloids because they live quietly and modestly in the country except when they donate their time to local charities as they often do. Meryl Streep. Kevin Bacon. Edward Herrmann. Jane Curtin. Laura Linney. Campbell Scott. Sam Waterston. Kyra Sedgwick. It’s an impressive, impeccable clique.
Until the other day, Jill Clayburgh, 66, was at the top of the list. She died on November 5 at her home in Lakeville from chronic leukemia according to The New York Times. (In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named her one of Hollywood’s 25 Greatest Actresses.) The wife of playwright David Rabe, her theatre credits ranged from the original 1972 Broadway production of Pippin to the 2006 revival of Barefoot in the Park. Her most famous movie was always Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), the story of a well-bred Upper East Side divorcee in the midst of the sexual and feminist revolutions. She was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress, but Jane Fonda won that year for Coming Home.
Nonetheless, Claybugh’s portrayal of Erica Benton was the iconic performance of the decade, an indelible portrait of a woman reinventing herself; the scene when she dances around her apartment in her undies to The Nutcracker is one of the great movie moments of all times. (The film is also an archaeological view of trash-strewn New York in the late 1970s and the emerging, still-raw SoHo art scene.) Amazingly, when I met Clayburgh last spring in Lakeville, she seemed to be just a slightly older version of Erica Benton. She was absolutely beautiful, and as gracious and lovely as could be.
Clayburgh was the epitome of the big star in a small town who felt a responsibility to give back to her community. Last May, she and Ed Herrmann spent several weeks rehearsing for an unforgettable staged reading of a play by Gail Sheehy to benefit the CMHA Northwest Center for Family Services. The play, Chasing the Tiger, was performed on the altar of the old un-airconditioned Methodist Church and it was an especially hot night and the atmosphere was stifling despite a few standing fans that had been brought in. But Clayburgh and Herrmann (and the supporting cast of Star Herrmann and Rick Trabucco) gave performances that were worthy of Tony nominations. Over 90 minutes, their characters—the legendary journalists Gail Sheehy and Clay Felker—fell in love, got married, grew old, and survived Felker’s 17-year bout with cancer. Now it seems clear that Clayburgh’s empathetic performance was informed by her own 21-year battle with chronic leukemia.
At the post-performance party, when I interrupted her conversation with the actor Sam Waterston (who lives in Cornwall) to take their photograph for Rural Intelligence, she wanted to make sure I knew about the new Oakhurst Diner in Millerton “You have to order the asparagus,” she told me. “They buy vegetables from my friend Andy Szymanowicz at Sol Flower Farm. You should write a story about him!” It was heartening to know that despite her fame, Clayburgh was one of us, too: a locavore, a good neighbor and loyal friend.