Actress Phyllis Avery Lived a Life of Timeless Grace

Friday, 17 Jun 2011 10:08 AM

By Susan Estrich

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It was about six years ago that my old friend Anne and I were sitting around daydreaming, and I started talking about my "perfect" house: three bedrooms (I have two children), convenient to my son's school, a yard for the dogs and, oh, yes, a peek at the ocean.

Then I mentioned my spending limit, and we both burst out laughing. Not possible. When we stopped laughing, Anne announced that her mother would find it for me.

Right.

Since I'd known Anne — and it's been more than 20 years — her mother had been a real-estate broker on the west side of Los Angeles, selling fancy houses to fancy people. I thought she was looking for a "project" for her mother, even if it was an impossible one. Actually, she was serious.

Actually, her mother, Phyllis Avery, broker to the rich and famous and me, found the house I was looking for, with three bedrooms, a zoo of sorts (waterfalls, a fish pond, rocks to climb) for the dogs and a really big peek at the ocean.

She was pleased as punch. She smiled every step of the way — a little paint there, a bit of updating in the kitchen, but it was perfection, she said, move-in ready. And I believed her. The seller's broker was not easy. OK, impossible. I was ready to give up. My house hadn't sold yet. I was operating at the very edge.

Phyllis kept smiling. My own mother was dying. I couldn't manage all this. She charmed the broker. She reassured me. She held my hand, literally and figuratively, as I took one of those jumps.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the life of Phyllis Avery, who died on May 19 at the age of 88. Eighty-eight? That made her 83 when she was driving me around showing me houses. Most people who die at 88 are lucky to have a few friends left to say goodbye to.

Phyllis had a hundred and something friends — from the 20-year-old boy, her next-door neighbor for his whole life, to the 40-something-year-old who worked with her in real estate, to her best friend, Toddie, two years her senior, who came from New York for the celebration and told the story of how they shared a cab after their first audition in 1937.

That was the eye-opener. The Phyllis Avery I knew was the eternally cheerful real-estate lady, the loving mother whose eyes lit up at the mention of one of her girls: her daughters, Avery and Anne, and her granddaughter, Martine.

But long before I met her, there was another Phyllis Avery, an actress who made her Broadway debut in 1937, was a featured ingenue in the 1940s hit "Charley's Aunt," played Ray Milland's wife in the '50s comedy "Meet Mr. McNulty," co-starred in the CBS '60s soap "The Clear Horizon," among a long list of credits. She was drop-dead gorgeous.

Then, in her 40s, a single mother with two daughters to raise, no longer an ingenue or anyone's young wife, she looked at the wall and turned, got her real-estate license, and set about to sell houses. The first few years, Anne told me, were bittersweet — giving up dreams always is. But never bitter.

She sold houses to the people she used to act with, to her former directors, co-stars, and producers, and she did it with verve and insight and most of all with joy.

She sang show tunes in the market.

So many of us have had to make those turns. I certainly have. But I don't know anyone (myself included) who did it with the grace of Phyllis, who did it in such a way that someone like me never even knew that this was not the road she intended to follow.

When I was much younger, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would always say "attorney general" or "Supreme Court justice" or "television anchorlady." I will never be any of those things.

I got off that escalator in 1990 — the year my best friend in politics was gearing up to run for president, the year my daughter was born. My son was born three weeks after he was inaugurated. I laughed when one of the "kids" who used to work for me and was now making White House appointments asked me if I wanted anything. A night's sleep, I said.

When you first make that turn, it's easy to believe it's just a detour, just a dogleg in the road. Maybe Washington later. Maybe someone would call me when the kids were older about moving east to host one of those "Crossfire"-type shows.

At a certain point, you understand that the calls don't come 10 years later, that you've been passed by your former students, that certain trains have left the station. You are no longer the "it" girl.

Phyllis had an occasional part in later years, but she knew who she was. And she kept on singing. She raised her girls. She had friends of every age. She aged, but she never got old.

Phyllis Avery was young until the day she died. And forever, her memory makes me feel so young.





© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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