Karen Black was in my cohort at Northwestern University School of Speech. Not for the whole time, because she disappeared. At the time I had no idea why -- some people may have known. Some of us assumed it was because Alvina Krause didn’t like her. Maybe AK didn’t like Robert Benedetti, her roommate at the time, either, but he was a big smart guy no one pushed around and he found a way around AK. He was just the kind of man she always tried to press into heroic parts, but he resisted and some thought that was why she resisted Karen Black.
Sometimes you can find more insight into someone through their dislikes than their likes. There’s a great deal of information about Karen out there now because of her recent death, and that includes the memorial in Hollywood which can be seen in compilation at this link: http://vimeo.com/75189301 The best parts of the video are the beginning, which is a montage of clips from ALL her movies (quite different from each other) and the end, which is a montage of still photos from birth to death, some of them shocking and most of them seductive.
I was fascinated to see Karen’s sister, who looks much like her. You get a pretty good idea of a well-loved extravagant sweet non-intellectual child-woman who loved sex, cats, and -- well, long walks on country roads, sunsets, kittens, and . . . other corny stuff. She could sing and compose. She wrote plays. She also very shrewdly played scary roles in horror films and was often funny. There’s a good deal of intelligence behind that, which would exasperate some people. It’s hard to know how much she was watching herself.
My basic theory is that AK didn’t like Karen because Karen scared her: she was a person who had abandoned all caution, while AK had staked her life on prudence and discretion in relationships, academic life, and -- well, she wasn’t always cautious when she taught acting. In some ways she was as instinctive and as able to pick up on undertow and subtext as KB was, and everyone says KB was an ace at it. But KB always supported and appreciated those inner springs, while AK wanted to analyze and shape them, which is what she understood to be the task of the actor, especially a traditional realistic proscenium stage actor trained to address tragedy and heroism. Big ideas, subtly expressed.
Personally, AK had to have respectability because that was her safety. She was a small, ambitious woman who grew up the youngest in a big family on a Mid-West farm and survived with a sonorous voice, a vigorous erect body, and the singlemindedness of a sword. If she had been labeled a lesbian, her career would have ended. She never risked acting professionally. It would be going too far to say that she had a German northern temperament while Karen Black had a Mediterranean Jewish soul. But not much.
Karen was a voluptuous, generously sensuous, man-loving person whose salvation was innocence. She didn’t cling or demand or try to prove anything. So far the only complaint I’ve seen her make is that she was treated badly on the set of “Day of the Locust.” It’s a bitter, punishing piece of madness and somehow that got attached to her.
The career of Benedetti was quite different. I haven’t had anything to do with either of them until recently and then only read Benedetti’s books, watched his movies, emailed a bit. KB is on Twitter. The two lives went in quite different directions and yet stayed together in friendship, which was always KB’s policy. Karen’s husband released the story of why she suddenly disappeared from our cohort and why she and Bene stayed such close friends: they conceived a child together at Northwestern. http://karenblackactress.blogspot.com Both biological parents have embraced this woman, who is an artist with family.
It’s hard to imagine either one of her bio-parents considering abortion and in those days it was probably illegal if not life-threatening. The stigma, lack of social support, and theatre dreams of both youngsters made raising a child alone impossible. The two families were local, proud, and who knows how they felt? Or whether they knew. Adoption in those days was rigidly private -- the government SWORE it would be forever hidden information.
There’s no such thing.
The State of Illinois has opened their adoption records so that the child made right under our noses -- I suppose some of us might have known, including AK -- found her bioparents, Karen and Bene. No doubt results are mixed and such an enterprise is not always well-advised, but in this case all three had known about each other and tried to find each other. It turned out just fine. The Benedetti family, generous and warm Italians that they are, pulled her in -- along with her children and grandchildren. She and Karen painted together towards the end and she helped with Karen’s care. KB refused morphine as much as she could bear so as to absorb this happiness.
Benedetti has a strong social conscience with a special concern for African Americans in the South. Karen was more of a “mom” who took care of everyone, regardless of who they were. Whether the social constriction the two shared as the price of love was part of creating their ethic or whether their natural character saw them through the ordeal, I see it as a triumph in the end. Integrity.
I suspect that when KB looked at AK, she saw a path she could never take and wouldn’t want to. All that caution, all that self-discipline and self-denial would have been impossible for her. Conversely, I suspect that when AK looked at KB she saw a life she could never lead: all restraints dropped, all goals surrendered to fate and hard work. I sat in the back of Annie May Swift auditorium, watching, and was more like AK than KB, but appreciated KB anyway. Do we have to make choices?
In some ways, AK’s choice betrayed her, because her fame and the emotional pressure she put on her students to break them out of their shells scared the corporate managers of the university apparatus so that they eased her out a little early. She was wise to have the backup of Eagles Mere and then Bloomsberg where all the calls were her own and a certain amount of abandonment was part of the regime, so long as you got to rehearsals on time. She and Lucy spent wonderful summer Sundays out in a little boat (it had to have been pea green) with big hats against sunburn. AK scribbled on a notepad, thinking furiously about the playwrights’ knots to untie for an increasingly savvy audience. All the while Lucy in her faithful, rather stout way, rowed quietly along on the mirroring water. KB’s idea of such intimacy might have meant stripping and plunging in, which would have ended local affection. Except for the stalwarts who would heroically swim out to save her.
A writer’s game -- watching, making word pictures, passing judgment on people many have loved -- is a risky business. Maybe more immoral that sharing physical pleasure when the opportunity arises. Maybe more immoral than pressing youngsters against their own psychic thorns in hopes of awakening them.
In a way AK probably had something to do with KB’s development but I don’t know whether anyone ever asked either of them. Sometimes it’s the people who wave us on who teach us most. Like, not to waste our time on a fate that’s not ours. Karen didn’t need Eagles Mere -- she was a natural film personality, not a stage presence, though she did well in New York. It was the California climate that let her bloom, and we are grateful.