Savior Or Svengali?
The Outsiders Who Moved Into The Lives Of Great, Vulnerable Artists
August 23, 1987|By Howard Reich.
It is 1982, and James Cagney sits in his wheelchair in a Manhattan town house, waiting for the cameras to roll. The left side of his face has become stiffened by arthritis, his right leg has swelled up and is visibly causing him pain.
Suddenly, Cagney-playing an old prizefighter who, in this scene of
``Terrible Joe Moran,`` is watching TV footage of his glory days-breaks down. The sight of the old black-and-white film, actually taken from Cagney`s 1932 boxing film ``Winner Take All,`` plus his physical pain, ``is too much for him,`` in the words of journalist Anthony Cook, who describes the scenario in Life magazine (March, 1984). ``Without warning, his head drops, his shoulders shake. Jimmy Cagney starts to cry.``
Why was a Hollywood legend-racked by diabetes, gout, neuritis, bone spurs on the spine, near-blindness in one eye and several strokes-putting himself through such agony after two decades of peaceful retirement?
The answer can be capsulized in a name: Marge Zimmerman.
In the last years of Cagney`s life, Zimmerman, 25 years Cagney`s junior, decided whom Cagney saw, where he went, how he spent his money, what he did with his time.
Zimmerman`s intense relationship with Cagney, however, is not unique. In fact, it epitomizes a Svengali-like scenario that has been played out many times in the performing arts. Several of the world`s most widely revered artists have allowed strangers to move into their lives and seize varying degrees of financial, emotional and artistic control. Though such
relationships are hardly the norm, they have developed so frequently as to form a bizarre but undeniable pattern.
It happened to an 84-year-old Georgia O`Keeffe, the late artist who severed long-standing friendships and ignored widespread gossip to live with a 27-year-old handyman named Juan Hamilton in 1973.
It happened to Brian Wilson, the creative and reclusive legend behind the Beach Boys, who had a drug-related nervous breakdown in the mid-`60s at the height of his success, and who, to this day, lives under the 24-hour-a-day control of his psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy.
It happened to Igor Stravinsky, the late composer whose style of composition changed radically during his association (from 1948 to
Stravinsky`s death in 1971) with his assistant, Robert Craft.
These and several other such partnerships have profoundly altered the lives of great artists and the art they created. The liaisons cast an intriguing light on how some of the world`s great artists function after they have achieved their fame.
JAMES CAGNEY AND MARGE ZIMMERMAN
Marguerite Zimmerman, to this day known in Hollywood simply as ``Marge,`` met Cagney and his wife, Willie, in 1970. The Cagneys had been customers in Zimmerman`s Silver Horn restaurant in Millbrook, N.Y., near the Cagneys` 711- acre Verney Farm.
At first, Marge and her husband, Don, kept their distance. In the early
`70s, however, they struck up conversations with the Cagneys. Soon Marge Zimmerman began dropping by the house to say hello, delivering home-cooked meals, running errands for the Cagneys and otherwise aiding an aging couple.
By the late `70s, the Zimmermans had become critical to the Cagneys`
``Long-standing relationships were severed, mail was intercepted, phone calls were not passed on or returned, and people who wanted to do business or maintain a friendship with Cagney first had to get past Zimmerman,`` writes journalist and Cagney-family friend Pat McGilligan in Film Comment magazine
``Cagney`s relatives fared no better . . . . Sister Jeanne (who plays George Cohan`s sister in `Yankee Doodle Dandy`) was dying of cancer, while younger (by five years) brother Bill, Cagney`s business partner and closest confidant, was fighting off a series of debilitating heart attacks when Zimmerman entered the scene.
``She kept harping on the faults of Cagney`s two adopted children,`` adds McGilligan. ``Already estranged from their parents, they were now left off hospital visiting lists. Nieces, nephews, cousins and in-laws tried to get through to visit Cagney, but Zimmerman was unimpressed by family ties.
``Though detectives and lawyers were consulted, the Cagney family kept silent about the situation for fear of jeopardizing Cagney`s fragile health.`` As one Cagney relative later told McGilligan, ``It was the greatest example of gradualism ever seen.``
Marge Zimmerman fervently disagrees.
``I helped make him want to stay alive,`` she says today from her home in upstate New York. ``To make a long story short, I found out that he was a diabetic (a condition Cagney and his doctors had been aware of) and that if he didn`t have control (of his diet) he would have had a massive heart attack. And that`s how we started to become friends (by Zimmerman delivering home-cooked meals). Before you knew it, I was doing everything.``
Indeed, Zimmerman acknowledges that by 1980 she, along with her husband, obtained power of attorney, became executors of the Cagney estate; by 1983, the Zimmermans became Cagney`s chief beneficiaries after the actor rewrote his will (Cagney died on March 30, 1986).
Most significant, perhaps, Zimmerman coaxed the actor back into movies after a 20-year retirement. She acknowledges that Cagney wanted no part of it. ``No, he didn`t really,`` she says. ``He was a very private man, a very quiet man. He loved his farm
He loved it so much, in fact, that en route to England to work on
``Ragtime`` (in 1979), which would mark his return to the screen, Cagney told Zimmerman he wanted out of the deal and needed to head straight back home.
``Well that`s true, of course,`` says Zimmerman. ``On the QE2, he wasn`t really sure of wanting to come back in (to moviemaking).
``Don`t forget, he hadn`t been on a set in 20 years . . . . So he said to me, `I`m not going to do the movie.`
``And I said, `You`re crazy.` ``
Zimmerman refused to call off the deal, and on the set she ``was a nervous wreck. I thought, `Oh, my God, Jim, maybe I did the wrong thing.` ``
Nevertheless, Zimmerman says that once Cagney walked out of his dressing room and onto the set, he was utterly invigorated.
``I never saw anybody that came alive (like that) when Cagney walked on that set.
``He walked out and said, `I guess I`m an actor,` and he was wonderful.`` He was also under Zimmerman`s complete control.